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01/21/2010

Microsoft makes Bing more private

Microsoft made an interesting move in the search engine privacy wars this week. The company announced significant changes to the way that it handles the data that it logs about its users. It could make all the difference to privacy-conscious users, and puts Google on the back foot.

Peter Cullen, chief privacy strategist at Microsoft, said that the company will completely delete data about the Internet addresses that its users search from after six months.

"Under our current policy, as soon as Microsoft receives a Bing search query we take steps to de-identify the data by separating it from account information that could identify the person who performed the search," Cullen said. "Then, at 18 months, we take the additional step of deleting the IP address, the de-identified cookie ID and any other cross-section IDs associated with the query."

Under the new system, data will still be de-identified straight away, but the company has shaved a whole year off the window during which it keeps its users' IP address data. This is important, because it is still possible to use cookie information with de-identified Internet protocol data to get a handle on which users are searching for what.

Compare this with Google, which keeps cookie information for the same amount of time as Microsoft, but which keeps IP addresses in full, only de-identifying them (not deleting them) after nine months.

In short, this seems to mean that your privacy when searching via Bing is going to be much more protected than it will be when searching via Google. Given the comments that Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, made a few weeks ago about privacy (basically, there isn't any, and users shouldn't expect it), it should give users food for thought when choosing which search engine to opt for when finding stuff online.

This is a big turnaround for Microsoft, which used to be the butt of many criticisms over privacy. When it proposed launching services such as Hailstorm, for example, which would have put together its identity management system with third-party companies' computers, it was slammed by the general community, and decided not to go ahead. That was almost a decade ago. Since then, companies such as Google and Facebook have proven themselves to be far less concerned about privacy than Microsoft ever was. For example, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, recently decided to change the site's privacy policy to make users' information viewable by default to others who are not their Facebook friends. In an interview, he said that it was now the social norm to simply put all your information online. Essentially, he doesn't think privacy exists either.

Microsoft has shown itself to be much more responsible about security in the past few years (in spite of recent security flaws in its Internet Explorer browser). Could it be about to claim the high ground when it comes to privacy, too?

Danny Bradbury, MSN Tech & Gadgets

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Danny BradburyDanny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with 20 years' experience. He writes regularly for publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Financial Post, and Backbone magazine. Danny also writes and directs documentaries.

Maurice CachoMaurice Cacho

Maurice Cacho is a Toronto-based journalist mixing his love for tech with a passion for news. He's also CP24's Web Journalist and appears daily on CP24 Breakfast and weekly on the channel's tech show, Webnation, discussing tech news and trends.

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